So You Want to Start a Vegetable Garden!
Story and Photos by Bonnie Helander

May is here and we are officially past the last “frost date” that could potentially damage any planting in a vegetable garden. If you want to try your hand at growing a few edibles to enjoy, there is still time to get started. Here are a few tips to ensure your success!

Location, location, location! The site you select for your garden is critical to healthy plants. Most summer vegetables and herbs need direct sunlight for at least 6-8 hours each day. A little shade in the late afternoon in our climate is also beneficial if possible. When selecting the site, make sure it is convenient (not too far away) and near a water source. You don’t want to be hauling buckets of water a long distance in August! If your garden plot is nearby and you can see it each day, you are more likely to get out there and tend to your plants.

It’s all about the soil! Give some time and attention to your soil. The extra effort will reward you with happy plants. If you are planting in the ground, take a soil sample of the area to your local extension office to see what nutrients you need to add to your garden plot. Mix in compost (decomposed organic material) with the native soil to add nutrients and allow the soil to more easily drain.

If you want to avoid digging and working with our hard, compacted clay soil, plant your garden in a raised bed. A raised bed is basically a frame above ground that you fill with a potting mixture. There are many online DIY “how-to” videos and step-by-step information on building and planting in a raised bed. It is an easy way to start a vegetable garden.

You can even forego planting in a garden bed altogether and decide to plant in containers on your back deck. Herbs and cherry tomatoes thrive in containers and since they are nearby, you are more likely to harvest them for your summer meal recipes. If your kids don’t like vegetables, give them a container and let them grow their own vegetables. Studies show that children will eat what they grow!

If you are just starting out…go small!  Most beginner gardeners make the mistake of designing a garden that is too big. A large garden can be overwhelming, especially in the heat of summer, when you don’t really want to spend as much time outside tending and harvesting your plants. A 6’x6’ garden bed is the perfect size for the new gardener.

Some of the easiest vegetables to grow are green beans, peas, radishes, carrots, cucumbers, kale, Swiss chard, beets, summer squash, onions, peppers and tomatoes. Start by choosing to grow only what you love to eat. Select up to five different vegetables to plant that your family enjoys. You will have plenty to harvest throughout the summer.

New gardeners often find it easier to start a garden with seedlings instead of sowing seeds. Seedlings are young plants grown from seed that you can purchase at your local plant nursery. Just transplant these seedlings directly into your garden bed.

Water wisely. In our hot summers, most vegetables planted in the ground will need a minimum of 1-2 inches of water (or more) a week. Container plants will need to be watered more often in the summer.  It is most efficient to water deeply and less often, than sprinkling water each day. If using a garden hose or bucket of water, aim for the roots and not the foliage to avoid fungal diseases. Adding a simple drip irrigation system to your garden bed is a way to simplify your watering, especially if you travel often and are not around to keep the garden watered.

Keep your eye on the garden daily. The best way to avoid pest and disease problems is to be out in your garden each day observing what is going on. Many pests can be picked off your plants before they get a stronghold. Keep on top of weeds since they will compete with your plants for water and space.

Notice what needs to be harvested and be ready to pick! Some vegetables need regular harvesting to continue to produce, such as beans, zucchini and tomatoes. Herbs need to be cut often. Pinch off the top of herbs frequently before they start to flower. Once an herb starts to flower, it puts its energy into the flower, and the foliage loses some of its flavor.

Become part of the gardening community. Gardeners love to share their experience with others. Get to know some veteran gardeners and you will have a resource for all your vegetable gardening questions. Join a garden club or community garden or an online gardening group. If you have a large harvest, share with friends, family or check with local charities, like the I:58 Mission in Senoia or the Real Life Center in Tyrone to learn how you can donate some of your fresh produce for other families to enjoy.

Keep a record of your successes and failures. A gardening journal is an invaluable tool to remind you of what worked and what didn’t work for you. Write down what you grew and note what pests and disease you had to deal with and how you solved any problems. You will be glad to have these notes when you start your garden next season!